Professional volleyball players sacrifice a great amount of typical life experiences in order to make a living using their talents. Many pro athletes have to miss special occasions or spend holidays on the road.
For example, the NBA has a lineup of games every Christmas day. There are always college football bowl games right before and after Christmas. England’s Premier League has a full schedule of games set on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas.
In the case of Americans playing pro volleyball abroad, it strikes close to home. Or far away from home, as the case may be. We asked some of the U.S. players around the world to tell us what it’s like and how they deal with being so far from home. They shared their stories, photos, and they offered their own holiday messages.
And being away from home is not always about the holidays.
Dave Smith, the USA national-team middle blocker and a current player for Asseco Resovia in Poland, was thousands of miles away from his wife, Kelli, when she was giving birth to the couple’s second child this past October 10. Smith was actually on the court for an intra-squad scrimmage two days before the opening match of the season.
Smith was pulled off the court by Megan Shoji, the wife of Kawika Shoji, when she got word that Kelli Smith had given birth. Shoji and Smith are teammates this season at Resovia.
Smith had to go outside to find cell reception adequate enough for a FaceTime call and got to see their daughter, Amelie, placed on her mother’s chest for the first time. Then he got back on the court.
It was another six weeks before Smith was reunited with his family, when they came to Rzeszów, Poland, where Dave plays.
The Smith Christmas will include family, but it will be in Poland.
“We have a new baby, in addition to our 6-year old son, Cohen, so it is extra hard for family to not be all together at the holidays,” Kelli said. “There is something extra special about experiencing the holidays through kids, and I know our family all wishes that we could be all together.”
Kelli’s mother is visiting and Smith has a brother-in-law who lives in Germany who will join them, so Kelli said she is looking forward to the cousins being together for the first time this holiday.
“We love going to the big cities and experiencing the Christmas markets and other festivities,” Kelli Smith said. “Specifically, Krakow and Warsaw are absolutely gorgeous during the holidays. The lights, food, special markets, and a magical atmosphere make it truly memorable. In Southern California the weather is pretty mild in the winter, so it is fun for us to live somewhere that really feels like winter, with crisp air and lots of snow. I wish all of my friends and family could spend a day enjoying the winter weather and all that Poland has to offer during the holidays.
“This is our third season in Poland and each year we learn a little more about Polish Christmas traditions. Our first year here we were graciously invited by a friend to her family’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner, which is a 12-course meal with specific dishes that you would typically find no matter whose table you find yourself at.
“The meal started with the breaking of a wafer, and an extra seat is always left at the table for an unexpected guest. Polish people typically do not eat meat at this meal, but fish is a big highlight through the dinner. We tried a traditional ‘kompot’ drink, which is made of dried fruits, and from my experience is an acquired taste! It was such a unique experience that we will always remember, and it has endeared Poland to us even more.”
The Smiths have been married since 2008. During that time Dave has also played in Germany, Puerto Rico, Spain, and France. While many people would love the opportunity to travel to all of those places, the obligation to be away from home can take a toll.
That’s a big reason why many players not on the national team make it through three or four seasons before deciding to return to the United States.
Some athletes make it back home for Christmas.
Taylor Sander played a five-set match for Sada Cruzeiro a week ago Saturday and got on a plane soon after to meet up with his wife and infant son in California. His club’s next match isn’t until January 11.
Michael Saeta, a setter at Chaumont VB 52 in France, and Ryan Manoogian, libero for Viking TIF in Norway, also have favorable schedules which allow them to make it to California for the holidays.
Saeta told us he is looking forward to hearing his father read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” on Christmas Eve. While Manoogian will be home for Christmas, he missed Thanksgiving dinner with his family this year, “including eating the homemade mashed potatoes with gravy and pumpkin pie.”
Not every player has the same luck as those three.
Erik Shoji will be playing the day after Christmas in Belgorod, Russia. His team, Fakel Novy Urengoy, will make a round trip of about 5,000 miles for the match. Luckily for Shoji, his team will be leaving temperatures of minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit to Belgorod, where it will be in the 30s. Matt Anderson and Zenit Kazan will be staying home in Russia to play Gazprom-Yugra on the same day.
Many players may not be playing a match but will be missing the long-standing traditions that have made Christmas special.
Cody Kessel, outside hitter for SVG Lüneburg will miss “cutting down a Christmas tree far up in the Colorado mountains with family.”
Matt West has been playing professionally in Europe since graduating from Pepperdine in 2015. He has experienced Christmases in Germany, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. This will be his first Christmas in Finland, and he says he will miss the big gatherings hosted by his family.
He remembers that his grandmother, “used to play the keyboard every Christmas and make us sing along.” His mother, Raquel Elsa Chumpitaz-West, coaches at Shoreline Community College and the Space Needle Volleyball Club in Seattle, Washington. She would also “invite everyone: coaches that worked for her, friends, family, whoever.” This gathering takes place on Christmas Eve because “in Peru, where she is originally from, they celebrate the night of the 24th.”
Jalen Penrose is in the Czech Republic with CEZ Karlovarsko this season.
“I will miss all my family,” Penrose said. “Usually I would go to a bunch of different family parties a few days before the actual holiday then spend the day of with my mother.”
Penrose said that he has not had any kind of holiday home meal since leaving the United States, so any food that his family makes would “hit the spot (as usual).” Penrose confessed that since it is his first year outside of the country and away from family, he will be “celebrating the holiday by trial and error.”
Scott Fifer is in his second professional season after playing at Lewis University. This is the first time he will be overseas for Christmas, and will miss “two wild family Christmas parties back home every year.” He assures everyone that “they are legendary!”
While it might be lonely or sad to be missing out on traditions from home, many players have been experiencing local holiday traditions. A few players in Europe mentioned Christmas markets as a highlight of the holiday season.
“For some reason, in California, they do not have Christmas markets. Here in France however, they have them all over equipped with my favorite mulled wine,” Saeta said.
Kessel said his favorite part of the season are the, “Christmas markets in my adorable, cozy, medieval town of Lüneburg.”
Matt West shared those sentiments by noting that, “when I played in Holland, Sinter Klaus was awesome, and in Germany the Christmas markets are just the best.”
No matter where these athletes will be spending the holiday season, their hearts and thoughts remain with their friends and families back home. All of the athletes or family members who gave information about the holiday season also wanted to extend holiday wishes to their loved ones.
Matt West (Hurrikaani Loimaa, Finland): “Have a happy and safe holidays. Especially with everything that’s taken place this year, and with the recent tragedies in the greater Malibu/Westlake area i hope they have an awesome holidays! Go Waves!”
Scott Fifer (Volley Schönenwerd, Switzerland): “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, I love and miss you all! Can’t wait to be back for summer time Chicago.
Cody Kessel (SVG Lüneburg, Germany): “Take no family time for granted! Every moment with those you love is precious. Lots of love to my family and friends.”
Ryan Manoogian (TIF Viking, Norway): “God Jul.”
Michael Saeta (Chaumont Volleyball, France): “Merry Christmas to all back in the States!! I hope you are able to watch the Americans overseas this season because some of them are playing some truly incredible volleyball!”
Jalen Penrose (CEZ Karlovarsko, Czech Republic): “As they already know, I just want my family to know that I love and miss them all.”
Kelli Smith, wife of Dave Smith (Asseco Resovia, Poland): “We want to say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our friends and family back home, and also to all the volleyball fans who cheer David on with Team USA and with his pro teams. Especially this last year, with the new addition to our family, we have been reminded of how blessed we are to have so many wonderful people in our lives who support us in all that we do. We are so thankful that David has the opportunity to play volleyball professionally, but it would not be possible without the support of so many people back at home.”